Rather than following the trend of other YouTubers-gone-Vimeo like comicbookgirl19 and Joey Graceffa, who released souped-up versions of their YouTube content, Southern has used her partnership to release a found-footage horror film that she began working on over four years ago with director Aaron Feldman. Southern gained national notoriety on YouTube with "Hot for Hillary," a 2007 musical ode to Hillary Clinton that boasts every brand of psychotic YouTube comment hence discovered, but Searching for Katie doesn't view the horror genre through a comedic lens or wink at the audience.
It’s exactly as advertised: a found-footage horror film, with Taryn Southern playing herself as a professional blogger, investigating a cult that might be responsible for the disappearance of her friend’s sister, Katie. The film follows a fictional cult, the Young Artists Co-op, but it handles the subject matter with the respect required for the group to feel very real, with interviews from real-life cult experts Hoyt Richards and Steve Hassan lending an educational angle rarely found in the horror genre.
Like Louis C.K.’s Tomorrow Night, it’s a fascinating look at passion project that we probably wouldn’t have without the Internet, and it’s easily a must-see for fans of Taryn Southern. Via email, Southern explained how the film came to finally be released, the production process, and getting the film ready in time for Halloween.
It’s a pretty cool move to make your Vimeo On Demand debut with a feature film. How did that come about? Did Vimeo ask you what you’d like to release, or did you approach Vimeo with the project?
I had the chance to meet the Vimeo team at Vidcon this past summer, and so we just kept a conversation going about ways to work together. They were looking to experiment with long form content on the platform, and I had this movie that I had been wanting to finish for awhile, so the timing just worked out perfectly!
How much of the project was shot after the four-year hiatus? Did it feel odd to return to the old footage, or do you think the distance helped it feel more like editing an actual documentary?
I'd say 60% of the film was shot 4.5 years ago. The rest was shot in the past 3 weeks! We had about 6 weeks total to edit the film and do all of the new reshoots. It was definitely odd going back and watching the old footage—there was SO much of it, and since it was shot off an outline (no script!), it was really tough to figure out the best way to piece together the old with the new. It was like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle!
What initially drew you and director Aaron Feldman to the subject of cults? It feels like you guys really did your research.
Aaron and I had been friends for a very long time. He's directed a few docu-style thrillers in the past, and we both have an equally high level of interest in things like cults, so 5 years ago I called him up and said "let's make a movie." He was out in L.A. within two weeks and boom!
What was it like interviewing Hoyt Richards and Steve Hassan? They both have such fascinating stories.
Steven and Hoyt are both incredible people. Their personal stories are fascinating, but their subsequent research and work in the areas of mind control and cult behavior has helped thousands of people escape dangerous groups. Hoyt helps families and former cult members assimilate back into the real world; Steven works closely with the government in areas closely related to mind-control groups—ISIS, human trafficking, etc. I could've made a film of just their interview in their entirety, just because everything they said was so incredibly interesting.
How crazy has the postproduction been from the time you agreed to release the film? Was it a pretty big challenge to get it wrapped up in time for Halloween?
Insanity. We started post production Sept. 2, but it took about 2 weeks to code and organize all the film material. We finished writing out our new outline by end of September, and then had about 3 weeks of simultaneous shooting and editing. It felt like we were doing a season of Project Greenlight!
Have you ever lived in a co-op? The co-op scenes felt very accurate, aside from the relative cleanliness and the fact that they were potentially creepy murderers, but I saw those things as possibly being related.
I've never lived in a co-op, but we just did as much research as possible to make the film realistic. All of the actors created their back stories, and we gave them a 6 page "manifesto" on the beliefs of the cult for them to memorize. I think the one big mistake we made was having wine at the cult house (since they were a super "healthy" cult, that wouldn't necessarily make sense.) But hey, when actors are working for free, wine is never a bad incentive to keep people on set right?
How much of the acting was improvised? What was the process in filming the Young Artists Co-op scenes, a typical day?
100% of it was improvised. We basically just had them "live in character" for two straight days while we filmed. They each had their backstory, and an "itinerary" for the weekend within the cult house, they just had to interact in character. We had a few scenes that were "set up" but no lines were fed to anyone. They were such troopers.
Was there anything you loved in the footage that was particularly hard to cut? Any hopes of seeing a deleted scenes reel in the future?
SO many things. A scene with Gina Lohman [one of the cult members] that was one of my favorites, as well as a scene in the cult house where one of the members is explaining sexual energy while giving a massage. Of the new stuff we shot, we cut a phone call with my attorney (my real attorney!) that we unfortunately had to cut because the sound was bad. We also shot a new scene with Jeff D'Agostino that I LOVED, [but] unfortunately it didn't quite feel like it fit the story. We would need to add in another scene to make it work, and we just didn't have the time. But yes, this movie could absolutely have been over an hour long, but we had to be decisive about what to chop so that the story made sense.
Did you record any songs exclusive to the film? If so, how did you approach writing that material?
Yes! "Among the Stars" was written by my friend Mike Cionni (it's the theme song for the cult) and we just gave him the manifesto and what he came up with was brilliant. Myself and the composer, Eric Breiner, wrote a song for the opening called "Wherever You Go." I'm hoping we'll finish it and release it separately. The lyrics of the chorus—"I will go…wherever you go"—basically encompasses the theme of the film, that some people choose to just follow others without critically thinking about the consequences.
Was there ever an intention to try and play the film off as a chronicle of true events? It seems like that may have been doable. I’d have probably believed it before a Googling.
We thought really hard about that—but ultimately [weren't] sure that it would be responsible of us. Also, anyone who did any research on the people in the film probably could've figured out they are all working actors in L.A. So, passing it off as true would've only taken us so far. Ultimately, we still want this film to be looked at as a documentary. Even though our narrative story is fictional, it's based on MANY stories we researched, and experts who round out the film are 100% real. So hopefully the information presented has the same effect as a doc.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of the whole process so far? How does it feel after the long development process to finally see the film released to an audience?
Finishing a film in 6 weeks!! Now I feel like making a 3 minute YouTube video each week is easy as pie. It's also just nice to see something I filmed so long ago finally get released. Everyone who worked on it deserved to see it get made. And huge kudos to Vimeo, for taking a chance on this project. It's cool to release it on their platform since the film has so many digital interactive elements.
Do you have any other features in the pipeline? Is feature filmmaking something you’d like to keep pursuing?
A musical—I REALLY want to make a musical. I'll probably start that project up early next year… I need a few months off before diving into anything long form again.… Outside of that, I've got a digital series for The Today Show premiering this fall ("Self Help for your Digital Soul") and a digital series with Maker Studios ("Born to Brunch"). The rest of the year I'll be working on my next album!
Screengrab via Vimeo